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WesternSFA
Robert A Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century
Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better 1948-1988
by William H Patterson Jr
Tom Doherty, $34.99, 672pp
Publication Date: June 3, 2014
This doorstop of a book looks rather daunting, but it's really a highly accessible volume. The 671 page count includes two appendices, almost 160 pages of footnotes, a bibliography and an index. The biography proper ends on page 486. Of course, this is just the second half of Patterson's magnum opus, following 'Volume 1: Learning Curve (1907-1948)'.

Roughly half of Heinlein's life is in each volume and the titles of them suggest that the pivot isn't just age but the point at which Heinlein had learned enough to be able to shape his own destiny. The fact that it was the year he married Virginia, his third wife, is surely notable too as she was a strong partner in everything he would do, going forward until the day he died.

By 1948, he'd completed his formal education, served in the US Navy, been stricken by tuberculosis, stood unsuccessfully for political office and been married and divorced twice. As far as writing goes, he'd become established as a science fiction writer, but wasn't yet the powerhouse that he would become. 1948 saw him working on the script for the movie 'Destination Moon'; his second juvenile, 'Space Cadet', was released in August and he was starting to move beyond the expected 'Tom Swift' formula with stories like 'Delilah and the Space Rigger,' which revolved around a woman overcoming male chauvinism on a space station.

If Heinlein learned a lot during this period, I learned a lot reading about it. I've read all his fiction, so discovering how it came about and how it evolved was fascinating. This book highlighted to me that I need to revisit some key titles which have faded a little from my memory, especially the big later books like 'Time Enough for Love,' 'The Number of the Beast,' and 'To Sail Beyond the Sunset.' However, others remain strong; especially 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,' which I re-read every few years, and the juveniles, which I blistered through again last year.

Patterson treats Heinlein's writing from a high level, not only by appropriately sticking to the biographical data and avoiding literary criticism but by leaving the actual writing relatively uncovered. He often explains how stories came about, how they were sold to (and edited for) publishers, and how they were received by critics and the public; but he rarely touches on the process of writing itself except to say that a particular title took this long to write.

In fact, science fiction is one of the surprising omissions of the book. Given that Heinlein was 'the grand master' of the genre, I expected a lot more of the book to be immersed in it. He did deliberately keep away from organized fandom for much of his life, but I was shocked to discover that he had become a Hugo award winner without even knowing he'd been nominated. Many science fiction writers feature in the text, but mostly through social activity rather than through a shared genre. Each time Heinlein sends congratulations to another writer on an award or milestone or contributes a personal introduction to a career, we're made acutely aware how little we know of what he read. Patterson rarely brings up his reading habits and, when he does, it's usually to highlight how he read on a wider basis than the field for which he was known.

There are other omissions here too that are rather surprising. It won't be shocking to realize that Heinlein was massively interested in American politics and the space race. Yet huge moments are glossed over or omitted entirely. For instance, we get two pages on the Cuban Missile Crisis, a few paragraphs on the Nixon/Kennedy election campaign and a single line on the JFK assassination, yet not one word about Kennedy's pledge to put a man on the moon within a decade. Later in the book, we discover in depth what Heinlein felt about the eventual achievement, famously announcing that 'The human race has passed from adolescence to manhood. July 16, the day of the moon launch, was New Year's Day of the Year 1.'

Perhaps there was nothing physical for Patterson to work from, but I doubt it. Heinlein wrote a vast amount of correspondence, much of which is covered extensively here as Patterson had full access to it in the archives. I can't believe that there's nothing there for such a crucial moment about which he would clearly have been passionate. Other omissions may tie to the fact that, correspondence aside, Heinlein was a strong advocate of privacy, meaning that much that might be interesting to us today is lost to the ages.

The other notable flaw here is that Patterson is relentlessly chronological in his approach, to the degree that his prose often captivates us into a subject only to break our attention by introducing unconnected data. A page about a subject might be interrupted by a line to say that Heinlein received a note from someone or someone else had died, before leaping straight back into the main subject again. I understand how the general flow should be chronological but the ruthlessness of that flow could have been tempered without any loss to the narrative, in fact with notable gain at points.

One positive aspect of that chronological approach is that when certain people occur and reoccur at points throughout Heinlein's life, the gaps are notably highlighted to us too. One that leapt out to me was Alexei Panshin, a Nebula award winning science fiction writer and Hugo award-winning critic. He arrives in this narrative as an annoying fifteen-year-old fan, but reappears throughout Heinlein's life, writing a book about him which his subject never read and loudly proclaimed as an intrusion of privacy. Each time Panshin's name crops up, we know it's a moment Heinlein isn't looking forward to, one of the ways in which Patterson best brings him to life.

Surely Patterson's greatest success here lies in how deeply he did his homework and how much he has documented which hasn't before seen print. I learned a vast amount about Heinlein and his life in a number of areas which I either never knew he was involved in at all or had little idea of the scope of his activities. How far he delved is eye-opening, but Heinlein always believed that if you were going to do something, you should do it right.

His political activity is only one example. It was sporadic in this half of his life but on occasion he threw himself into it headlong so it became his primary attention. Another is his work on blood, prompted by his life being saved by anonymous blood donors. He spent as much time writing an entry for the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica' on blood as he did writing some of his novels and he became highly active in the field, building donor drives at conventions and requiring payments for events in blood units.

Yet another is his travel. I knew he'd done so widely, though I haven't read his travel book, 'Tramp Royale;' but I had no idea of just how far he'd gone. He made a habit of visiting places that wouldn't be on most people's itineraries, such as Communist Russia and China. He also had the opportunity to go to places most can't, such as a trip to Antarctica and even one on the first boat to start in Europe and successfully navigate the Northwest Passage. I was particularly fascinated to discover how his travels in other countries help to shape his views and his fiction.

While this is, in many ways, a scholarly volume, a major source for future books which will inevitably follow in its wake, it's surprisingly accessible. Patterson's prose is easy to read, packed with data but never dry. I expected to work through the book over time, but found that I devoured it in a few long sessions.

I'd highly recommend it to anyone with a strong background in Heinlein's works who might be interested in the man who wrote them rather than just the books themselves. This second volume would seem to be the key one for the science fiction audience, but it's very much the second half of a whole (or Patterson would have spent the first chapter reprising the first volume). I wish I'd have read that first half first, even though that's going to have a lot less to do with his writing career. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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